Deep divisions among the Nicaraguan rebels operating out of Costa Rica seriously threaten their long-run ability to keep up the fight against the Sandinista government.
The divisions are proving hard to bridge. They are rooted in strongly held, longstanding personal and ideological differences.
At the center of the dispute is the group's official leader, Eden Pastora Gomez, who is recovering in a Venezuelan hospital from a bomb attack May 30. His critics want to remove the rebel group, called the Democratic Revolutionary Alliance or ARDE, from his control.
''We want to get out from under the domination of one sole leader,'' comments one high-ranking ARDE member. ''The liberation of Nicaragua cannot be the work of one man.''
Such critics say that Pastora has been highhanded and ''dictatorial.'' They contend he has tried to impose both his own ideological line and personal authority.
These increasingly bitter divisions are reflected in basic strategic disagreements.
The Pastora faction flatly rejects American efforts to persuade ARDE to unite with the larger group of Nicaraguan rebels operating out of Honduras. Pastora insists that the Honduran-based group must first completely purge its leadership of conservative elements, especially of those once associated with former Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle.
The other main ARDE faction here, led by former businessman Alfonso Robelo Callejas, wants to unite eventually with the Honduran-based contras. This faction sees important military and tactical advantages flowing from a merger of guerrilla forces. And it suspects that ARDE has little alternative anyway, since the CIA now refuses to fund it until it does agree to a merger.
It was the CIA arm-twisting on unity that precipitated the current crisis within ARDE. But differences within all the anti-Sandinista contras seem almost inevitable. The various rebel organizations are made up of an uneasy alliance of very different social and ideological groups in Nicaraguan society. And they came out against the Sandinistas at different times over the past five years.
The Honduras-based rebel organization, the Nicaraguan Democratic Force or FDN , was originally formed from members of Somoza's National Guard and other Somoza supporters, who fled the country when the dictatorship was overthrown in 1979.
Since then, many non-Somocistas have joined the movement, especially at the lower levels. Among them are Indians from the Caribbean coast and some peasants from northern Nicaragua.
The top FDN leadership, however, remains dominated by a coalition of former Somocistas and, the more conservative elements of Nicaragua's old business and social establishment.
ARDE was founded later than the FDN. ARDE formed in September 1982 as a coalition of two main groups: the Nicaraguan Democratic Movement or MDN headed by Alfonso Robelo, and an armed group headed by Eden Pastora, which he called the Sandino Revolutionary Front or FRS.
Robelo, while head of the MDN in Managua, entered into a coalition with the Sandinistas in 1979 and became a member of Nicaragua's five-person government junta until he broke with the Sandinistas in 198l. His group is largely a party of liberal businessmen and professionals with an ideological spectrum ranging from the Nicaraguan equivalent of liberal Nelson Rockefeller-style Republicans to Gary Hart-style Democrats. Like the Nicaraguan Democratic Force in Honduras, its mail goal is to overthrow the Sandinistas.
Pastora and his most important followers, on the other hand, are largely ex-Sandinistas, who broke with the Managua government in 1981 and 1982. Unlike Robelo's group, the professed goal of Pastora's group is to force the Sandinista revolution to moderate, rather than to overthrow, the Sandinista government.
This group deplores what it sees as Managua's excessive dependence on the Soviets and East Bloc countries and calls for a democratization of the revolution. Essentially, they see themselves as third-world leftist radicals.
At the moment, the only military force in ARDE is under the control of Pastora. These troops last week took a severe drubbing from Nicaraguan soldiers. The ARDE siege on the border fortress of El Castillo was crushed and Pastora's forces were pushed about three miles down the San Juan River.
Robelo's group is counting on eventually asserting control over Pastora's troops through control of the purse strings. Sources close to Robelo's group say they are getting some money from the CIA (although not as much as usual), but Pastora's people are getting none.
Sources within the group state that as long as Pastora has money, they will not attempt to wrest control away from him for fear of provoking bloodshed.
But if the group fails to persuade Pastora to join unity talks with the Honduras-based contras, Robelo's group will proceed alone in talks with the Nicaraguan Democratic Force.
Robelo says he foresees pushing ahead with negotiations with the Honduras-based forces, since talks with Pastora are going nowhere. Robelo does not see these northern forces in the same light as Pastora.
''To say that the FDN is Somocista is a piece of demagogy that echoes the accusations of the FSLN (the ruling Sandinista National Liberation Front.) For the fight against Managua to be effective, we need unity,'' Robelo says.
A question that arises is whether the Nicaraguan Democratic Force will be interested in unifying with Robelo if he cannot deliver large numbers of fighters.
Another question is whether the FDN would want to share power with him. Robelo thinks that what he can offer the FDN is increased legitimacy.